Refresh your business with storytelling

big book

I have to share this out-of-the-box business story from Fast Company about Nick Kokonas, cofounder of Alinea and Next restaurants in Chicago with Chef Grant Achatz.

There are two hooks here for small businesses, and I’ll thread them together after a bit of background:

Anyone in the restaurant business is always grappling with the next big idea, and that’s the “genesis of the story” in this Fast Company article.

The restaurateurs are “reimagining the restaurant experience as entertainment and pricing it as such.” At the new eatery, Next, the two are innovatively changing the dining experience with premium prices being placed on the same foods at different times of the week. The same meal will cost more at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. Saturday than it will cost at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday. To top it off, tickets are being sold for seating! Fascinating, eh? (Next is still not open, but it’s coming soon!)

What this suggests to anyone in business is the need to continually innovate. By keeping it fresh, altering the business model, hiring an expensive someone or something to try a new approach, or jumping in to social media sites aggressively, the rewards should, theoretically, be bountiful (with trial and error and perseverance, of course!).

Where I pull in the storytelling angle is directly from within the Fast Company article, “Next’s genesis story:”

There’s background about Chef Grant Achatz’s diagnosis of tongue cancer (in remission).

There are about a dozen personal factoids about Nick’s youth, family, habits, Chicago, reading list, wine, etc.

Not only does this article tell me about an cutting-edge approach to fine dining and how to earn a larger profit, it delivers a compelling and personal story about the Chicago entrepreneurs. People will not only gobble up the famed cuisine at Next, they will also share the personal tidbits about Nick Kokonas’s life over dinner in ultra-premium-priced seating reserved by ticket on Saturdays between 7 – 8 p.m.

Why is this information interesting to small-and-medium businesses? It’s all about innovation. Everyone needs a fresh approach to push through the same-old routine and make it zing. If your business is stale, and this could be as simple as a website, then do a design refresh with great storytelling finesse sprinkled in.

Is the customer always right?

Seinfeld fans will remember the episode with Elaine needing to see a doctor for a rash and unable to find a single physician in the city who’ll treat her. Somewhere in her medical records is a notation warning, “Lousy customer. Get rid of her.” Each doctor immediately escorts her out the door without so much as a smile and a handshake, and out she goes to try to find someone, somewhere, who’ll give her what she needs.

Aaah. If only, right? Not in the business world. You’ve heard it a million times, and so have your customers (potential included): “The customer is always right.”

If you’ve been in business long enough, you’ve even had a couple of customers who have pushed that philosophy to the breaking point, expecting you to meet their unreasonable demands and bend over backwards to give them a level of service that would put you out of business if you did the same for everyone. You’ve experienced that chest-tightening, heart-pounding, shallow-breathing physical reaction that had you wondering if owning your own business was really worth the cost of shaving 20 years off your life.

News Flash: Your customer is not always right.

But how do you cut a customer loose without leaving him feeling disrespected? How do you maintain your good reputation in the marketplace, a reputation you’ve earned by making every other customer happy? In this social media culture we now find ourselves in, a negative report from a customer can be plastered all over the Internet, leaving potential customers wary of doing business with you.

So what’s a business owner to do with an Elaine? How do you leave a customer feeling good about you, when they’d rather complain?

You do everything in your power to leave that customer feeling like he IS right, and you let him save face — and then you escort him out the door with a smile and a handshake.

In the South, it’s called “southern diplomacy,” usually practiced by beautiful southern women who can smile sweetly, deliver a criticism in a gentle and understanding voice, and end it with “Bless your heart.”

I’ve heard it said another way: “Kill them with kindness.” A proverb by one of the wisest kings to ever live, King Solomon, says it like so, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Whether or not you believe “the Lord” will reward you, it’s been demonstrated time and again that an enemy (or unhappy customer) who feels respected and cared for as you part ways diplomatically is much less likely to feel the need for revenge.

The most powerful words in customer service are, “I’m sorry. What can I do to maintain our relationship with you?” and then you listen to the customer’s request. If it’s so over the top you can’t possibly meet it, say so — but then negotiate with him until you find a solution that works for both of you.

Keep the customer believing that you want to work this out, that you want to leave him satisfied, because you do. Your reputation is at stake.

Deliver the solution in a timely matter, with quality. Then, part ways diplomatically.

Apologize again, saying, “I’m sorry we’re not able to be all that you need us to be, but I’ve learned a lot from this that’ll make me a better business owner, so thank-you for working with me.”

Leave the customer with the sense that your interaction with him has been good for you, and then make it so by learning from it — even if what you learned was a new red flag to keep an eye out for in the future.

Smile sweetly, even if it’s over the phone. (And refrain from saying, “Bless your heart.” Only beautiful southern women have the power to pull that one off.)

How have you handled difficult-to-please customers? What would you add to this advice? Have you ever had a customer who was set on destroying your reputation no matter how hard you tried to part ways diplomatically?